Free to play is the new black, it seems. No longer associated with bad Korean MMO's, and cheap, simple flash games, free to play is really starting to hit its stride. There is an amazing amount of triple-a quality F2P games out there now, and many more in the pipeline. What has caused this seemingly sudden influx of F2P titles? To me it seems that a few strong games paved the way, proving that there was a burgeoning audience that were willing to pay for their games in small amounts at a time, via micro-transactions, and since the model has been proven effective, a lot of other publishers are trying to replicate the success of games like Lord of the Rings Online and Team Fortress 2.
But what does this mean for the gaming industry at large? Is the free to play model a direction that the industry is going to move towards perpetually, and every game will cease to be an iteration, and become more of a service, in which players have to pick and choose what they would like to pay for, smorgasbord style? I don't think so. I think there will always be room for both. There can be no complaints about the current crop of F2P games. There is a vast amount of free gameplay out there at the moment, thousands of hours that anyone can download and try without paying a cent.
Therein lies the only hitch in all this free to play goodness that I can see; there is just so many free to play games out there, and many more coming, that are wholly dependent on strong player communities, and every time a new one is released, is it sapping the player base from other existing games? When Blacklight Retribution and Tribes Ascend hit the web, does that mean an exodus of players from the Team Fortress 2 community? Is there just going to be so many F2P games out there down the track, so that no single game can grow a good, strong multiplayer community, each new game diluting the pool even further? I think some games will swim, and others will sink. The battle for free to play supremacy is going to get nasty, and if a game isn't at 100% at launch, as many games aren't, then they run the risk of not capturing that dedicated fan-base, and dissolving into un-patched, and unsupported obscurity. Maybe a champion will rise, much like World of Warcraft did for MMO's a few years back, and become the super-success that other developers strive to replicate. Only time will tell.
If you are interested in some free to play goodness, here are some of my current favorites that you can download right now, free!
Lord of the Rings Online - A vast, fantastic MMO RPG. This one came out in 2007, and I think it's aging nicely. Solid visuals, great atmosphere, and a gift from Vala for Tolkein fans. This thing takes it Ring's lore very seriously. You can play pretty well up to the mid level 20's without any real need to spend money, but with ponies, cool cosmetic gear and extra bag slots, they make it mighty tempting.
Team Fortress 2 - Smooth, well presented shooter chaos. Class based team matches, a great sense of character, a very strong player base, and the hats, oh the hats. You need never spend a dollar to get some great gameplay out of this one. Refined shooter goodness. Can't recommend it enough.
Blacklight Retribution - I would love to recommend this, as it's a great looking futuristic shooter, with player and weapon customization, all done on the Unreal 3 engine, but as the game currently has no Australian servers, I can't join a game with a ping less than 400ms, making the game essentially unplayable. The developer, Zombie Games, is promising Aussie support soon.
Tribes Ascend - Newly released sequel to the classic Tribes series. I'm heavily into this one at the moment. Great sense of speed and movement, thanks to the skiing mechanics and jetpack. Sci-fi setting, team based shooter gameplay, huge levels; a classic reborn.
Age of Empires Online - An online RTS, with some persistent city building mechanics thrown in. This game had an underwhelming launch for some reason, but I pick it up from time to time, and I'm transported back to 1997, when I fell in love with the original Age of Empires. This is a great little game with a nice art style and some good RTS gameplay.